We Rise Together: Understanding PPE (and why you don’t need it)
PPE or personal protective equipment is one of the buzzwords we keep hearing during this COVID-19 pandemic. In calls for donations, as part of the news cycle, PPE keeps coming up. In our previous articles in the We Rise series, we see it donned by our frontliners, donated by members, and deemed vital by all.
EOers across the world have been actively involving themselves with the production, procurement, and donation of PPE ever since COVID-19 came to the forefront of global affairs. We at MyEO Engage have reported about the efforts of various chapters, most of whom have some kind of PPE component to them for medical workers. In our most recent feature that showed glimpses of the situation in different corners of the world, we saw the role that PPE is playing on a number of levels. In this article, we want to take some time to look at how these valuable resources help in the fight against COVID-19, and the key issues surrounding it.
So, what exactly is PPE?
Personal Protective Equipment is an umbrella term used for a number of items that are used to protect the wearer's body from injury or infection. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the term is broadly used to group medical-grade items that protect frontliners working directly with COVID-19 patients. Items such as coveralls, gowns, face shields, medical gloves, masks, and respirators are all just different forms of PPE.
In a professional setting, this physical equipment is used in conjunction with any number of appropriate precautions to ensure that the PPE protects against COVID-19. Depending on how exposed they are to the virus, even medical workers are required to wear specific combinations of these items, with varying levels of protection. Cautions that need to be taken when using majority of PPE usually come down to how many times they are used. In the case of masks & face related protective items, these should ideally only be used once, then properly disposed of as hazardous waste.
Medical grade items that should be used exclusively by medical professionals in a hospital setting. According to the World Health Organization, although use of PPE is the most visible control measure used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infection, it is only one of the measures in place EVEN IN A MEDICAL SETTING. The bottomline: even if PPE does help, it should not and cannot be relied upon as a primary prevention strategy against COVID-19.
WHY IS THERE A SHORTAGE?
Right now, any kind of protection that available PPE can provide helps the existing healthcare systems continue operating without getting infected themselves. Because COVID-19 is so easily transmitted, a significant percentage of the global infection and mortality rates are composed of frontliners who contracted the virus on the job. Even under the most ideal of circumstances, COVID-19 still finds a way to do damage. Nevertheless, hospitals will always need a steady stream of PPE for doctors, nurses, and essential staff. So why do hospitals and frontliners from all around the world keep asking for PPE? The answer lies in the supply chain for these essential goods. Throughout this pandemic, there has been a disturbing emergent trend of resellers, hoarders, imitation producers, shady middlemen, and their ilk finding ways to prey on whoever wants PPE. The most alarming case and most common case has has been with the N95 respirators. This key and previously accessible piece of PPE should be standard issue protection for hospital workers due to it's highly rated and uncomplicated protection for the nose and mouth. Even before the global outbreak, undersupplied medical professionals were reusing N95s that were meant for one time use only, putting themselves at higher risk of COVID-19 infection. When the virus found out of the epicenter in China, PPE supplies became even more difficult come by, with China producing for localized use. These incidents made N95s one of the most valuable items if they saw the open market, or were even made available to healthcare systems around the world. The disruption is mostly thanks to the private sector’s emerging demand for protection. Prices for the N95 mask have skyrocketed, with the average price tripling since the outbreak began for anyone with the money for it. This disruption in supply for N95s, as well as for PPE in general, disinfectants, and so many related products put our healthcare practitioners in a prone position: unprotected and unsure if aid could even get to them.
Just how bad could it be?
Medical professionals have been been forced to improvise with their homemade PPE. As recently as early February and March 2020 there were instances of hospitals around the world resorting to using trash bags over their scrubs due to the lack of appropriate PPE.
These incidents are slowing down as the private sectors and some governments are working to provide or produce these resources to ensure that they are available for the frontliners for the foreseeable future. This shortage however has already taken a major toll on healthcare workers, with the infection and mortality rate in the medical industry becoming an occupational hazard for medical professionals around the world, with the U.S. having the highest number of reported cases at 9,000 by mid-April.
This lack of appropriate protection is one of the major challenges frontliners have to face daily when they report to work, with no way to directly confront it.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
The world as a whole is at a difficult point in the PPE aspect of the COVID-19 crisis. Recent World Health Organization communication has called on governments and industries that produce PPE to increase production by a minimum of 40% in anticipation of infection rates based off of current COVID-19 predictive models. This means that our frontliners aren’t anywhere close to getting adequate supplies now, but may not receive protection in the future unless several major changes can be implemented. For us entrepreneurs, there are recourses that we can take to help in this regard.
There are emerging stories of how private entities looking to donate medical equipment only to be faced with dishonest business practices. The biggest concern is that there are supplies that are stagnating in warehouses and stockpiles, just waiting to be sold. This diversion and disruption in the supply chain prevents essential goods from getting into the hands of medical professionals. It cannot be emphasized enough: if you’re not a medical worker, you don’t need medical grade PPE the way that they do. If you or your company have any reserve stocks, such as was the case of several major companies like Goldman Sachs and Facebook, these supplies can be donated through the proper channels directly to medical workers.
Help From Home Initiatives
Many EO-ers around the world are lending them support by transforming their businesses to help offset this global supply gap for PPE. For some, it means volunteering to make cloth-based masks. For others, it means providing PPE-alternatives for frontliners that were 3D printed. We want you to know that there are alternative ways to protect others from the comforts of your own home.
Home-made masks are one of the most viable alternatives to single use protection that you can buy commercially. For those that can sew from home or have access to viable fabrics, there are many groups online calling for volunteers to create masks. Local community efforts are usually arranged by hospitals and non-profits in your area, usually donating these for benefactors that likely can't afford commercial masks. Though they may have a preferred design, or a particular donated fabric to work with, home-sewn masks should meet the U.S. Center for Disease Control specification. If you are looking for a way to volunteer in this pandemic, mask production is one noble pursuit. Check with your local hospital groups or online to find a group that you can get started with!
For 3D printing hobbyists and businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has given them the opportunity to serve the medical community in an innovative and agile way. By providing some unique solutions to a number of PPE and COVID-19 related supplies, there's a lot of help thy are providing. Designers for medical tech have collaborated with the 3D printing community to provide tools and resources frontliners can put to good use. So far, we've seen items as complex as testing swaps and entire ventilator systems, to more common essentials like face shields and respirators printed en masse. If you have access to a printer and the right kind of filament, your local hospital may just need your help, especially with a number of open source faceshields. Through the website Thingiverse, you can access a number of those designs being used in hospitals across the world for donation to medical frontliners and other essential business that may need.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO PROTECT OURSELVES?
Going outside for essential things like getting groceries or medicine is still bound to happen. For as long as the COVID-19 virus is running rampant, everyone will need some form of protection when venturing out of their homes. You wouldn’t however need coveralls for a trip to the market, or walking your dog (in cities where it’s still permitted). Just like PPE in a medical setting, the most effective way to protect yourself is through a combination of protection and best practices working together.
Always use masks that cover your nose and mouth securely, even if they're homemade. We've shared some of the masks that you can make at home, but saved one more in case you really want to go all out for your own protection. The version developed by the Boston Children’s Hosptial has become one of the most popular designs that comes close to replicating N95 capacities. This version will be provide you more than enough protection during a grocery or food run if the need arises to leave home.
Disinfecting hard surfaces and anything that comes from the outside
Now more than ever, you need to be incredibly conscious of how COVID-19 virus can be transferred through object and surface contaminations. This means taking the time to do extra cleaning for items that come into contact with the outside world. Luckily, there are options between commercial disinfectants, detergents, cleaning agents, bleaches, alcohol based-sprays and wipes, when it comes to cleaning hard surfaces. When used properly, these commercial items can kill any virus particles that may linger on things like a door handle, cardboard boxes, food packaging, or the soles of your shoes. Similar to the PPE analogy, disinfectants are just one of the ways to protect ourselves and not the sole method to be relied on. Also, we do not recommend ingesting any sort of bleach or disinfectant solution ever. New Behaviors: hand-washing and social distancing It cannot be emphasized enough that there is a need to protect ourselves and one another from contracting COVID-19, and there are few more effective methods than staying away from one another. Regular handwashing with soap, especially when coming from open environments, is one of the easiest ways to kill the virus. Staying at home is one of the few proven ways to not contract the virus. Keeping at least 2 meters away from each other when human interaction is necessary is a safe practice we can all do. Though we may have heard these guidelines somewhere at some point in this pandemic, they are some of the best practices we can incorporate in our lives moving forward. These new behaviors give everyone a fighting chance, even if they may seem inconvenient.
Remember: this is everyone's fight
If you or your business can help in this fight against COVID-19, thank you for your efforts. Many of you are doing your part, and that's giving so many of us hope. Right now, whether that's adjusting your business, donating to your local hospital, or even staying home, let's all do our part.
If you, or your chapter are conducting efforts of any kind in the midst of this pandemic, we want to tell your story. We at the MyEO Engage team want to shine the light on you. If you are interested in sharing your efforts with us, shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org about your efforts, who you are helping, and how we can share your spark of hope.